The July 15 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek takes a look at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s checkered record on education reform and finds a fair amount to question.

Aptly called “Bill Gates’ School Crusade,” it indeed evokes the sense that Gates’ meddling in public education is more driven by some kind of  zealotry than facts.

There is a long section about Gates’ latest obsession, “performance/merit pay” for teachers — and how it doesn’t work. This is very relevant to Seattle right now because the superintendent, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, and district are trying to force the teacher’s union to accept this faulty scheme in the current round of negotiations.

Seattle’s teachers should check out this article and bring it to the bargaining table. It provides some sober and empowering evidence that this latest ed reform fad is a failure and leads to poor results for teachers and students alike. By and large, good teachers are not motivated by cash.  So Seattle’s teachers have every right to refuse this ineffective demand.

Here are some highlights:

“We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that,” [Eli] Broad said last year at a public event in Manhattan. “But what we do know about is management and governance.”

Aha. So there you have it. “Venture philanthropist” and public education privatizer Broad himself admits he doesn’t know a damn thing about education. But he’s still willing to impose his “reform” notions on our schoolkids and infiltrate our school districts with his Stepford Superintendents who all spout the same mantras of top-down central control, subjecting kids to an endless regimen of high-stakes testing, and utter disrespect for teachers.

Here in Seattle, we have a “Broad Academy” trained superintendent who is pushing the Broad agenda and aided by two $90,ooo “Broad Residents” who are in charge of the controversial MAP test that the superintendent wants to use to measure teachers, not students, even though the test is not designed for that purpose and may in fact not be truly useful at all since it doesn’t align to Washington State standards or the Seattle Schools curriculum.

Now, if Seattle’s Broad Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson has been trained to be good at “management and governance, why on her watch has the recent state audit given her and the school board a damning review, finding law-skirting, mismanagement of funds and resources? (And leading to a grassroots recall effort of all five school board members also named in the audit.) Did Goodloe-Johnson fail to do her homework at the Broad Academy? Or is such reckless mismanagement a good example of Broad training?

MEMO TO MARIA GOODLOE-JOHNSON AND SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT: Even Bill Gates’ own survey shows that “merit pay” doesn’t work. So why are you trying to push it on our teachers right now in your negotiations?:

Despite the opportunity to increase their income, teachers nationwide are skeptical of Gates’ agenda. In a national survey of 40,000 teachers co-sponsored by the Gates Foundation and released in March, 36 percent said that tying pay to performance is not at all important in retaining good teachers, while only 8 percent said it’s essential. And 30 percent said it would have no effect on student achievement—triple the proportion that said it would have a very strong impact.

“The Gates Foundation was very surprised,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “They asked the question in a way they thought they’d get a positive result, and they got a very negative result.” On the contrary, says Gates spokesman Christopher Williams, the foundation was heartened that a significant portion of teachers do believe in merit pay.


Today, the Gates Foundation and Education Secretary Duncan move in apparent lockstep. Two of Duncan’s top aides, Chief of Staff Margot Rogers and Assistant Deputy Secretary James H. Shelton III, came from the foundation and were granted waivers by the Administration from its revolving-door policy limiting involvement with former employers. Vicki Phillips, who heads the foundation’s education programs, and Duncan participated from 2004 to 2007 in the Urban Superintendents Network, a group of a dozen school leaders who met twice a year at weekend retreats co-funded by Gates.

How much unchecked influence does Bill Gates have on our kids’ public education? Have a look:

When the federal government made $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top awards available—favoring applicants that agree to link teacher pay to test score gains, increase the number of charter schools, and adopt common curriculum standards—the Gates Foundation paid for consultants to prepare applications for 24 states, as well as the District of Columbia.

The Gates Foundation, which bankrolled development of the common curriculum standards (…) As a private entity that doesn’t answer to voters, Gates can back initiatives that are politically dicey for the Obama Administration, such as uniform standards, says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy. In the past, states’ rights advocates have blocked federal efforts for a national curriculum. Gates “was able to do something the federal government couldn’t do,” Jennings says.

At the same time, the rapport between the federal government and the largest private education funder is raising concerns that competing ideas are getting squeezed out. “It’s like a mind meld between Arne Duncan and the Gates Foundation,” says former U.S. Assistant Education Secretary Diane Ravitch, whose 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, criticizes Gates for exerting “vast power and unchecked influence” over American education.

Is Bill Gates leading us towards the Windows Vista of education reform? Release “product” first, test it out later, if it has bugs, too bad for the unwitting consumer?

The alliance between the Gates Foundation and the government raises other issues, too. Drew Gitomer, a researcher with the Educational Testing Service, says the foundation may be rushing a $45 million study that involves videotaping math, English, and biology lessons by nearly 3,000 teachers in the just-ended and upcoming school years. (The project lets teachers watch their lessons—and student reactions to them—to identify effective techniques, like football coaches breaking down game film.) The foundation plans to preview its findings this fall, which could help state Race to the Top winners design teacher evaluation programs.

The study “is very much fast-tracked,” says Gitomer, whose role in the study is to assess teachers. “There’s a feeling this is the opportune time. In a better world, it might have been nice to pilot some of these things. There’s some risk associated with moving that quickly.”

The Gates-Duncan Department of Education?

Phillips says the foundation maintains “appropriate firewalls.” While members of its staff testify before Congress and keep tabs on federal and state policy, the foundation doesn’t lobby or influence government decisions on grants, she says. Asked whether the appointment of Brad Jupp, a senior program adviser at the Education Dept., to an advisory committee for the Gates teacher videotaping study violated the foundation’s firewalls, Phillips said, “It’s one of those fine lines we walk constantly.” When the foundation approached Jupp, he initially expressed interest in serving on the committee, he said in an e-mail. After Bloomberg Businessweek asked Phillips about it, Jupp declined the position. He said he changed course on the advice of the department’s ethics counsel.

Meanwhile, in Hillsborough, FL, where the Gates Foundation has plied money into its latest ed experiment, “performance/merit pay” for teachers isn’t working: (SEATTLE TEACHERS TAKE NOTE!)

Kathy Jones, a 35-year veteran who teaches Advanced Placement world history, asked how the district could measure her students’ improvement since they don’t take a prerequisite course or a pretest. When Brown said PSAT scores as well as exams in other social studies courses could provide a baseline, Jones scoffed: “I don’t see how it’s even possible.”

The testy atmosphere illustrates the challenges for Hillsborough—and the Gateses—as they translate theory into practice. The foundation has worked hard to bring teachers on board. Gates is paying $1,500 apiece to more than 600 Hillsborough teachers whose lessons are being videotaped. Says Cassie Schroeder, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Giunta Middle School in Tampa: “I put it toward my credit cards.”

Hillsborough teachers complain that they already have a pay-for-performance plan, and they don’t like it: the State of Florida’s Merit Award Program, which gives 5 percent bonuses based on student test score gains in the prior year. Because of limited funding, teachers within each subject compete for awards. Arlene Castelli, principal of Giunta, says teachers are embarrassed to win the bonuses. “If you can’t boast about an award, what good is it?” she asks. “I don’t like pitting teachers against each other.”

That, in the end, is one of the major worries about the Gates plan: that it will encourage teachers to think narrowly in their own interests, to not only “teach to the test” but also refrain from the cooperative efforts that are essential to the education process.

At Giunta, two-thirds of the 1,134 students in sixth through eighth grades are black or Hispanic, almost three-fourths come from poor families, and low achievers in math take two classes, regular and intensive, with different teachers. Before state testing in March, students on the bubble of passing or failing—about 20 percent of each grade—attend extra sessions with teachers who drill them on their weaknesses. Like a baseball player who won’t bunt to advance a teammate, a teacher may think twice about giving a student extra help if a colleague gets the credit—and the pay raise. “We don’t want teacher evaluation to get in the way of student achievement,” says Castelli. “Who’s to say the parents didn’t work with the children at night? Who’s to say the child didn’t mature? Or the child blew off the test the year before?”

Shrugging off “the commune-type approach,” Bill Gates says that excellence demands individual accountability.

So is Gates saying that teachers are all hippies, socialists and Communards? Therein lies the problem with Gates’ approach to education: He fails to understand or accept that schools are communities, teaching is as much a calling as a profession, the best schools are cooperative, collaborative, nurturing environments. And not everyone in the world is motivated by cash.

Thank you, Businessweek, for a good read.

— Sue Peters